Sunday, 25 October 2009


We’re just back from Belfast, a city that has always held a special place in my affections, ever since I found myself going there regularly for work in the eighties and nineties. Like another of my favourite cities, Berlin, it’s somewhere that has suffered, and that suffering has marked it but also matured it, made it more interesting, both in the physical aspect of the city and in the character of the people you meet there.

In my early visits, it was a pretty surprising place. I remember coming out of a meeting and finding myself right in the middle of an army patrol – soldiers, rifles in hand, moving in short burst up the street, then crouching to check on any possible hostile movement. It was a shock but then I noticed that the people I was with were simply walking through the group as though it weren’t there – the smiling faces of the men in suits, armed with briefcases, simply weaving their way in amongst the blacked-up faces of the men in uniform, armed with automatic weapons.

This weekend it surprised me again, but for the opposite reason. It surprised me by its sheer normalcy. One of the mundane effects of the troubles, one of the effects on everyday life, was that Belfast seemed stuck in a time warp compared to Britain. At a time when British eating habits were being transformed, Belfast clung on to the old traditions – as one of my friends pointed out to me, in those days the range of sandwiches on offer would be ham and pickle or cheese and tomato. Today brie or chorizo is on the menu, in cafés where coffee, as in most places round Europe, means espresso or latte or cappuccino or Americano, not just a spoonful of nondescript powder dissolved in warm water. Just the same banal modishness that we find everywhere, you might say; but in a city whose outmodedness had been such a characteristic for so long, that kind of banality is exciting and refreshing.

I was particularly delighted by St George’s Market. It was heaving with people (in the past shopping, particularly in the city centre, was something that you did quickly, almost furtively, in order to get home fast before anything unpleasant – potentially life-threatening – happened to you). And the place was a wonderful mix of different sounds and smells and flavours – I saw food from India, from China, from Spain, from the West Indies, as well as from Ireland (the latter on a stand offering either Irish stew or Curry, a combination that has to be an eloquent tribute to how far things have come). The profusion was exhilarating, and I loved the way it showed the tediousness of all those ghastly racists in organisations like the British National Party , with their desire to replace this kaleidoscope by the dull homogeneity of mono-culture.

It was great to spend a weekend in a city which is emerging, and emerging rapidly, from a long tunnel of pain. It shows what can be achieved just as soon as we can silence those who are prepared to kill and maim in the name of religion or, even more trivially, over what colour of flag we live under.

All that nonsense produces lots of wonderful material for songs and films. But it can’t hold a candle to the sheer pleasure that Belfast is now enjoying, of being able to live in peace at last.

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